Importance: A practice gap exists in the surgical removal of sentinel lymph nodes, from removal of only the most radioactive (hottest) lymph node to removal of all lymph nodes with radioactivity greater than 10% of the hottest lymph node.
Objective: To determine the clinical significance of melanoma in sentinel lymph nodes that are not the hottest sentinel node and to determine the risk for disease progression based on sentinel lymph node status and primary tumor characteristics.
Design, setting, and participants: Consecutive patients with cutaneous melanoma with sentinel lymph nodes resected from January 5, 2004, to June 30, 2008, with a mean follow-up of 59 months, at Massachusetts General Hospital were included in this retrospective review. The last year of follow-up was 2012. The operative protocol led to resection of all sentinel lymph nodes with radioactivity greater than 10% of the hottest lymph node. The number of lymph nodes removed, technetium-99m counts for each sentinel lymph node, presence or absence of sentinel lymph node metastases, primary tumor characteristics, disease progression, and melanoma-specific survival were recorded.
Main outcomes and measures: Microscopic melanoma metastases in the hottest and nonhottest sentinel lymph nodes and factors that correlate with disease progression and mortality.
Results: A total of 1575 sentinel lymph nodes were analyzed in 475 patients. Ninety-one patients (19%) had positive sentinel lymph nodes. Of these, 72 (79%) had metastases in the hottest sentinel lymph node. Of 19 cases with tumor present, but not in the hottest sentinel lymph node, counts ranged from 26% to 97% of the hottest node. Progression occurred in 43% of patients with sentinel node metastasis, regardless of whether the hottest lymph node was positive. In patients with negative sentinel lymph nodes, 11% developed metastases beyond the sentinel lymph node basin and 3.4% recurred in the basin. Mitogenicity of the primary tumor was associated with mortality (odds ratio, 2.435; 95% CI, 1.351-4.391; P < .001). Removing only the hottest sentinel lymph node would have led to false-negative results in 19 of 475 (4%) of all patients and 19 of 91 patients (21%) with positive sentinel lymph nodes. The 8-year survival in patients with at least 1 positive sentinel lymph node was less than 55%. The presence of more than 1 mitosis per square millimeter in the primary cutaneous melanoma was associated with decreased survival.
Conclusions and relevance: Microscopic melanoma metastases was associated with disease progression and mortality, whether present in the hottest sentinel lymph node or not. These observations emphasize the importance of removing the less hot nodes, addressing a practice gap in the surgical approach to patients with melanoma.